By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support
Erica McLaughlin, a C-TLC Fellow, is an elementary school principal and also a Vermont Principals Association Executive Council Board Member (August 5, 2019).
Erica McLaughlin, principal of Randolph Elementary School in Vermont, has been on a journey to lead her staff in bringing mindfulness to her school. She emphasizes that while she is the principal, this is a journey that the entire school is on together. With some trial and error, she and her team discovered how to successfully introduce mindfulness to her whole school community. Their approach to a school mindfulness practice from the top down and bottom up can inspire other school leaders to do the same.
Setting the Foundation for Mindfulness at Randolph Elementary
Erica first became interested in how she as a school leader could help alleviate the negative effects of trauma when she saw the levels of dysregulation in the classroom increase as the population of her school changed. More students entered Randolph having experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences and staff were noting that these students seemed to be less able to regulate. She decided she should learn more about trauma by enrolling in graduate courses with Dave Melnick, the Program Director of the Northeast Family Institute through the Vermont Higher Education Collaborative. Those courses taught her about the importance of educating all teachers, paraprofessionals, and any other staff that regularly interacts with students about how the brain functions and strategies to help children regulate their emotions and behaviors.
Last year, she brought Joelle van Lent, a psychologist and trauma specialist, to Randolph to lead professional development seminars each quarter on how trauma affects students’ brains and behavior. She also attended monthly meetings with Joelle and other educators to learn more about what school leaders can do to address trauma in their schools. Teachers were so enthusiastic about learning more that 65% of them participated in an optional 3 credit graduate course. Ms. van Lent will be coming back to Randolph this school year to guide teachers to a deeper understanding of their role supporting students who have experienced trauma. All Randolph teachers and paraprofessionals will participate in these monthly learning sessions; 41 teachers have signed up for an additional course with Ms. van Lent. Erica said, “This will be our champions group that will help us sustain this transformation over time.”
After learning about the benefits of mindfulness to reduce stress and alleviate some of the negative effects of trauma, Erica and one of her teachers decided that’s exactly what Randolph staff and students needed to address the toxic stress many of them lived with every day.
Persisting Despite Resistance
Erica laid the groundwork for a staff mindfulness practice with a training session on compassion fatigue and burnout. She felt that it was important for her as an administrator to model self-care, so that her staff would understand how important it was for them to advocate for their own self-care. Erica thought a logical next step would be to introduce yoga, meditation, and nature walk opportunities during professional learning time. She hoped the teachers would be as enthusiastic about practicing mindfulness as they were about learning how trauma affects students. Staff gave feedback that they would prefer to use this time for curriculum work instead. Some leaders would abandon their plans as soon as they saw resistance, but Erica McLaughlin is not one of those leaders.
At this point, she could have decided that her staff just wasn’t interested in mindfulness and moved on to the next trend in education. Instead, she took a step back and asked herself why this didn’t work. She realized that while yoga and meditation appealed to her as an avenue for her personal mindfulness practice, not all of her staff had bought into the concept of mindfulness as quickly and deeply as she had. She decided to go back to the drawing board, consult with some enthusiastic teachers, and figure out how to bring mindfulness to Randolph in a more organic way.
Finding the Mindfulness Practices that Work for Randolph
Luckily, Erica had an ally in one staff member who thought using mindfulness and yoga in her classroom was just what her students, who she felt she was constantly playing self-regulation Whack-a-mole with, needed. Erica granted this teacher permission to spend part of her days doing kid-friendly yoga practices with her students. Everyone was impressed with how effective the mindfulness was at helping students regulate.
After some careful thought and consideration, Erica realized that while starting with one’s own mindfulness practice is the most appropriate and effective way to bring mindfulness to those you teach, teachers weren’t seeing the connection between their personal regulation and that of their class. She began repeating a lesson she’d learned from Ms. van Lent’s sessions, “Your class can only be as regulated as you are.” For the 2019-2020 school year, Erica supported her staff’s idea to take a multi-pronged approach to addressing trauma. She would continue bringing experts in to teach educators about the neurobiology of trauma and practical steps to take to help students who have experienced trauma. In addition, teachers would build their foundations for a mindfulness practice by exploring the philosophy of mindfulness before jumping into a personal practice.
This school year, she’s addressing the pressing needs in the classroom by focusing on self-regulation. She’s encouraging teachers to make time and space in multiple instances throughout the day to clear the emotional table to engage in social-emotional learning activities. Randolph is doing this through the RISE program, a brainchild of the teacher who saw so many benefits using mindfulness in her own classroom that she wanted the rest of the school to feel the difference it can make for them, too. The RISE program is being led by a licensed social worker and a clinical psychologist she hired to increase Randolph’s ability to respond to trauma in the moment. These two new staff members will work with students to increase their ability to regulate by teaching them about mindfulness, yoga, and social-emotional skills. These women will bring their backgrounds in the mental health field into classrooms and homes because Erica understands that to sustainably decrease toxic stress in students’ lives, you have to change the systems in place at home, too.
Teachers will be reading and participating in a book study about Happy Teachers Change the World, which the teacher who found success with yoga in her classroom recommended. Erica hopes this will inspire them to find exactly which methods will enhance their own mindfulness practice.
Erica is grateful for the opportunity the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC) has given her to network with other school leaders passionate about mindfulness. She’s enjoying learning about programs and activities that have worked for other schools. Her work in the C-TLC has inspired her to inundate herself in mindfulness since the end of last school year. She’s excited to see how her staff and students respond to her plan to encourage a more mindful school community this year.